Emotional Control and Emotional Presence
Many of us grew up with parents who were uncomfortable with the expression of “negative” emotions such as anger, sadness, or frustration.
In general our culture is one where “negative” emotional expressions are not supported.
We limit the length of time we consider appropriate for the expression of those emotions. Or we might assign appropriate emotions by gender or other identities.
When our parents responded negatively to our emotions as children, they were reinforcing cultural norms. These norms are also reinforced in peer groups and institutions, such as school.
Because adult approval is often based on expressing only “appropriate” feelings, we begin to associate those feelings with being a bad person.
We learn at a young age that when we express anger or sadness, we are bad. And alternatively, when we express happiness we are good.
In my own experience, even as I moved in adulthood, I still had this mistaken belief that if I were truly a good person, I wouldn’t feel these “bad” feelings.
We become uncomfortable when we feel certain emotions or when we express them.
When we are uncomfortable, we look to relieve our discomfort by focusing externally on the individual whom we believe is the cause.
I know in my own personal and professional relationships, I have been in a place where I was unwilling to be with my discomfort and understand the deeper meaning behind it.
I instead looked to change the behavior of the people in my life.
The other response to this discomfort is to try and push away the emotions. We resist the feelings or we go to war with them. We might tell ourselves, “I shouldn’t be angry!” Or use other methods to control the emotions.
These forms of resistance are very common.
The other result of the emotional control I experienced as a child was that I didn’t have the opportunity to express my feelings when I had difficult experiences. When something went wrong and I was sad or angry, I didn’t have a way to express those feelings to others as a way to make sense of what was happening to me.
I suppressed the feelings. The experience then had more power over me because I was not able to integrate the experience and understand its impact on me.
In doing research for my book, I came across several articles that discussed what happens when children’s emotional expressions are controlled. Reading these articles were an affirmation of my experiences as a child and an adult.
Psychologists have found that when a child doesn’t have the opportunity to express her feelings from a negative experience her emotions get caught in an emotional “loop.”
When she has a similar negative experience in the future, not only is she reacting to that current experience, she is also re-experiencing the feelings of the past. Her emotions are magnified and not just grounded in the present.
These are often referred to as unintegrated emotions that appear as automatic reactions.
I refer to these experiences as “triggers.” I first came across this term in doing dialogue work. But, it is applicable to all parts of our lives and especially parenting.
For example, I might be happily singing a song or doing something a little goofy and a child will tell me to stop it.
Rather than seeing the child as a girl who wants her mom to stop singing off-key, I am returned to my childhood where an adult would get angry because we were having fun and playing too loudly.
I respond to the child telling me to stop singing by feeling embarrassed, being angry at her, or perhaps feeling powerless, like a victim.
I am not reacting to the child’s request, I am taken back to being a little girl who is yelled at for having fun and expressing it in ways that a more powerful adult doesn’t like.
Because I couldn’t express my anger at my father or go to my mother and talk about how hurtful the experience was, I got caught in an emotional loop.
We have been trained through our childhood experiences to automatically push the “bad” feelings away.
This kind of emotional control can get in the way of developing awareness of how emotions are impacting us. Emotional control also blocks us from integrating the past emotions.
These feelings then build and come out in more intense triggered reactions.
When I am triggered by something a child does, my emotional responses are rarely about whatever she might be doing, but about my past experiences.
When in this reactive mode, we are not present in the moment. We are reacting to our past, unintegrated emotions.
Acknowledging, allowing, accepting those “bad” feelings is the internal work we need to do as parents. Rather than focus on changing the behavior of the person in front of us we can instead focus on our own discomfort.
We can allow ourselves to be present with the discomfort.
Rather than see it as something we need to get rid of, we can see it as the opportunity we need to integrate past emotional experiences.
I have had some parents question whether or not I’m recommending that we don’t show our “negative” emotions to children. I don’t think we should hide our true selves from the people we love and who love us.
When our emotions come from an unintegrated experience, however, we create distance between us and the children in our lives because our emotions are not about them, but our past experiences.
We cut off our connection to the children in our lives. It is a reaction to the past, which means we can’t be as fully present in the moment .
When we are not in reaction to unintegrated emotional experiences, we can express frustration, fear, sadness or anger in ways that are not harmful to others.
We then aren’t asking children to be responsible for our feelings and take care of us.
We can be real and express the feelings without the power of the past behind them.
When we are in the present moment, we can respond in ways that are authentic for us and create space for others to be authentic in their own feelings as well.
Being a parent who respects children and values their opinions and feelings doesn’t mean we’re always happy.
Things happen in our lives.
I may feel sad, fearful, disappointed, or angry. It may not even be related to being a parent.
There are times when I know my emotions are unintegrated and I haven’t been able to move through those emotions. During those times when I recognize this, I’m often able to name it (describe it) to the children in my life as a way of creating context for my actions.
Expressing these emotions in ways that don’t shut down children who are less powerful than adults can be a way of connecting as real human beings.
We can be vulnerable and real with children and build deeper connections.
We can positively express anger or fear and not have it be about control and coercion.
We can also be intentional in our support of children expressing their emotions so that they will have fewer unintegrated emotions that are triggered as they become adults, and perhaps even parents.
Do your struggle with anger or frustration with the children in your life? Then do you judge yourself and feel guilt or shame for your feelings or the way you express them?
I have been there and work with so many parents who feel the same. It’s disheartening to struggle and see the impact on your children, but there are tools and techniques that can help you be the parent you want to be. Consider the opportunity to get consulting or coaching to learn skills for embracing discomfort, increasing emotional presence, and accepting all of your emotions. See the options below.
Here’s what a few parents have said about working with me.
It was wonderful connecting with you and receiving support to move out of the box. Your work is important and groundbreaking. Thank you! ~Savannah Hanson, Marriage and Family Therapist
Teresa is an amazing woman who is gentle and skilled at helping you to draw out “stuff” you may not even know is lurking there! ~Mellissa
Teresa’s insight and guidance have been an invaluable part of my personal growth and development, and all the relationships in my life are better because of what she has helped me process. ~Brianna Fricke